On a Tuesday afternoon in Oakland, it was even hotter outside the Chestnut Street Aramark industrial laundry than it was inside the plant. Amid the din of passing trucks and BART trains, 150 orange-T-shirt clad laundry workers and supporters of their union, Workers United, protested the lack of a contract with Aramark. Massing in a parking lot, the multiracial crowd heard from the actor Danny Glover and national union president Edgar Romney. As each speech was translated into English, Spanish, and Cantonese, the mainly Asian and Hispanic crowd yelled "Contract now!" Glover called their rally a "community of love" that can be found in any struggle in which people are fighting for wages and benefits that allow the raising of a healthy and productive family. After an hour of speeches and chanting, the crowd entered the offices of management and demanded that Aramark sign a contract. But soon they exited unsuccessfully, chanting "We will be back."
Rallies for better wages and working conditions are normal and healthy events in our community. But more was happening here. What was unusual about this event was the presence of ten or so red-clad workers and officers of a rival union, UniteHere. These counter-protestors yelled during the speeches and mildly attempted to disrupt the rally, periodically taunting the main crowd. A few birds were flipped back and forth. The dispute had a little of the flavor of a boisterous crowd of competing fans outside a 49ers-Raiders game.
The genesis of this counterprotest was the recent UniteHere divorce, in which most of the UNITE leadership left the union and joined the larger Service Employees International Union — taking on the name Workers United. Like Workers United, the demonstrators from UniteHere claimed that theirs was the proper union for the workers at the plant. To the consternation of Workers United but with the approval of UniteHere, Aramark is deducting dues from the paychecks of the workers but holding the money in escrow.
In spite of UniteHere's assertion that it is the proper union for these workers, its leaders admit that the fight is confusing for workers on both sides of the issue. That was clear in observing folks at the rally.
Once again, the silent presence at the rally was the invisible figure of Andy Stern, the national president of the SEIU. Much of this fight is really about how one sees Stern. UniteHere supporters believe he is a devilish figure and most of the leaders of major American unions agree. The left wing of the union movement and its supporters in the Bay Area are firmly opposed to him as well. However, Stern remains one of the most powerful figures in labor and he leads the movement's biggest union. He is extraordinarily active and creative. Many believe, like Edgar Romney said at the rally, that the SEIU is the "biggest and baddest union in the country." Workers who feel powerless often want a union led by a "big and bad" leader, like support for Jimmy Hoffa years ago in spite of his obvious personal flaws.
To make things even sadder, part of the dispute between Workers United/SEIU and UniteHere is really about who has power over the labor bank that was controlled by UNITE when it initially merged with HERE. The $4.5 billion Amalgamated Bank of New York is the only fully union-owned bank in the country. But contentious litigation is ongoing over the bank and other assets. Confusing events such as the dispute at this rally are likely to continue until the money fight is resolved. Then this particular dispute is likely to end. It is almost paralyzing to think that leaders on both sides would use these tactics in their intra-union fight.
In his speech, Workers United president Edgar Romney turned at one point to the members of UniteHere and implored them that the fight was not among workers but between the workers and Aramark. "The day will come when we will all be together," he told the crowd. That is probably true; however, given the way that union leadership is conducting its cannibalistic battles, the real question is what role the workers will have in that future. Given these disputes, will we see this solidarity on this Earth or, as the old labor song used to say, "in the sweet bye and bye?"
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